- - Monday, July 6, 2020

After a jury convicted former Ku Klux Klan member Thomas E. Blanton Jr., who died in prison June 26, of participating in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, then-FBI Director Louis Freeh called the case “a disgrace to the FBI.”

According to Mr. Freeh, “That case should have been prosecuted in 1964. It could have been prosecuted in 1964. The evidence,” Mr. Freeh said in 2001 when Blanton was convicted almost 40 years later, “was there.”

As was often the case, Mr. Freeh, who never missed a chance to make himself look good at the expense of the FBI, had his facts wrong.

On Sept. 15, 1963, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all African-American school girls, were dressed in white party dresses and patent leather shoes for a youth service. Nineteen bundled sticks of dynamite concealed under a stairwell exploded inches from them. All four died.

Immortalized by a Bob Dylan song, the tragedy shocked the country. It contributed to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender, and hastened the end of the Jim Crow laws that had enforced segregation across much of the South.

No one was prosecuted. But in 1993, G. Robert “Rob” Langford became the FBI’s special agent in charge in Birmingham. Mr. Langford opened a dialogue with Black leaders such as Rev. Abraham Woods, pastor of St. Joseph Baptist Church. Why didn’t the FBI investigate the bombing back in 1964? Woods asked the SAC.

“I can’t imagine the bureau did not investigate,” Mr. Langford said. “I know we were active by then against the Klan.” He promised to look into it.

In 1994, Mr. Langford met again with black leaders and told them the FBI did investigate the bombing after it happened, but the files indicated the FBI did not turn over the results to the Birmingham police or state troopers because the Klan had infiltrated those organizations. The Alabama Department of Public Safety actively tried to throw roadblocks in the way of FBI agents investigating the bombing. 

In a memo in the files, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said he opposed prosecution because the likelihood of obtaining a conviction was “remote.” But he directed the Birmingham field office to ensure that the investigation “receive continuous aggressive action and that all investigative avenues be pursued in an effort to obtain sufficient evidence so that successful prosecution can be secured.”

Mr. Langford assigned FBI agent William L. Fleming to pursue the case as a civil rights matter. The Birmingham police assigned Ben H. Herren, a Birmingham police detective, to work with Mr. Fleming. The FBI then took him on as a research specialist.

“After 14 months, we decided the main suspects were still the main suspects,” Mr. Fleming told me for my book “The Bureau: The Secrets of the FBI.” “We didn’t have a lot of hope. It had been 33 years. Memories had faded, witnesses had died.”

What clinched the case were incriminating FBI recordings Mr. Fleming uncovered of Blanton and his wife Jean talking in their kitchen, where the FBI had installed a bugging device that penetrated a wall to an adjoining apartment. Mr. Fleming also found recordings of incriminating conversations between Blanton and another Klan member.

Because the electronic surveillance involved illegal entry, the eavesdropping was to help generate leads, not for use as evidence in court. Because the quality was so poor, the tapes had to be enhanced with techniques that were unknown back then. In 2001, Doug Jones, a U.S. attorney, was given a special appointment to prosecute the case in state court. The judge ruled based on new laws that the tapes could be introduced as evidence. Jurors heard a tape of Blanton bragging to the other Klan member about the bombing.

“They ain’t gonna catch me when I bomb my next church,” Blanton said. “The boys done a good job on this one. There are a few Negroes now who won’t grow up to bother us.” 

On May 1, 2001, a jury deliberated for two hours before finding Blanton guilty of first degree murder. He was sentenced to four life terms. Klan members Robert Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry were also convicted.

Thus, instead of being a disgrace, as FBI Director Freeh had claimed, the case was an FBI triumph. Because of the laws at the time, witnesses’ fear, and the nearly inaudible tapes, it was highly unlikely — as Hoover had said — that the FBI could have contributed to a successful prosecution in 1964. The tapes from the kitchen electronic surveillance could not have been introduced, and they could not have been enhanced to make them understandable.

Because of the tenacity of the FBI, the bureau finally brought to justice a man who had blown up four girls because of the color of their skin.

• Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of “The Secrets of the FBI.”

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